As judgment for his many sins rains down on Boris Johnson, his future looks bleak. Irrespective of whether the British Prime Minister manages to cling to office after the scandal involving parties, lockdown rule-breaking and his innate dishonesty, he is politically emaciated.
Last week was meant to see the delivery of the bureaucratic judgment by civil servant Sue Gray, who has been investigating the boozy goings-on in 10 Downing Street. That verdict did not come, in part because the Metropolitan Police launched its own investigation after Gray handed it information and the force asked her to remove swathes of her report until its inquiry is complete.
The worst outcome Johnson can expect from the police inquiry is probably nothing more than the sort of fixed penalty notice given to a speeding motorist. Far more damaging for a politician whose career depends on public sentiment is how voters view this escapade.
Conservative-supporting newspapers have repeatedly quoted Tories who say the anger at Johnson is not tribal, emanating from those who already disliked him, but is evident among Conservative members and supporters.
The speed of Johnson’s collapse is remarkable. Not only did he deliver a landslide 80-seat majority little more than two years ago, but it is not yet nine months since the Tories took the Labour seat of Hartlepool in a by-election, only the second time in almost four decades that Britain’s governing party won a seat in a by-election.
Yet Johnson’s sudden implosion of support has left him less popular than Theresa May at the nadir of her forgettable premiership.
If Johnson does fall, there will not be a great crash, but a dull plop. This will not be the passing from office of a Churchill, Attlee, Thatcher or Blair, but of a prime minister whose role in the history books will be as a warning of how not to fulfil the role.
If he survives, it is likely to be as a hollow prime minister; a man who will be a vessel filled alternatively by each of his divided party’s disparate factions.
Buying off one group and then another with promises to be later broken — the classic Johnsonian tactic — might help him survive, but it will accelerate the growing incoherence of his time in office.
Despite Johnson’s cultivated image as a clown, he is an intelligent man who has a sharp knowledge of history. If he has any self-awareness, looking now at the possible end of the road must involve a realisation of how vacuous his tenure has been.
His handling of the pandemic will be forensically examined by the coming public inquiry, but even based on what is already known, it is clear that at key moments he acted flippantly.
The triumph of the vaccine roll-out is unlikely to repair the damage of a leader who broke his own lockdown rules and who failed to give the country the serious leadership it required in a period of national peril.
Even as the pandemic recedes, there has been little real policy agenda from the prime minister. There are days where parliament is rising mid-afternoon because of the absence of government legislation.
Johnson came in to “get Brexit done” and he has partially achieved that. But even that issue is not resolved. The central Brexit problem — Northern Ireland — is subject to stuttering negotiations and there are a host of other areas where talks with the EU are either happening now or will be necessary over coming years because the trade deal he struck two years ago was minimalist, putting off many key decisions.
Even Brexit itself was only meant to be the beginning of a new age of major policy shifts, freeing Britain to alter regulations, strike new trade deals, and chart its own course in the world. However, little of substance has changed or is in the process of being changed.
One of Johnson’s heroes, the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, said: “I believed that ‘freedom’ is not a clear or sufficient answer to the question of what conservatives believe in. Like Matthew Arnold, I held that ‘freedom is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere’.”
Johnson has been on the horse for two-and-a-half years but the wearying animal is being given little direction. What is the point of him surviving if he doesn’t want to achieve anything beyond his own continued inhabitancy of 10 Downing Street?
He illustrates how, if getting power is an end in itself, then it is a shabby end. Power should be a means to an end. From his boyhood, Johnson dreamed of occupying this office, but after a lifetime working toward that goal he has an unflattering legacy.
There is little hint that if he stays for another few years he has any grand ambitions or the damaging habits of a lifetime are about to be broken.
Johnson has been an unserious prime minister who will be remembered for how frivolously he behaved at a time of mass death. His flaws are not due to a lack of intellectual capacity, but moral substance.
He had one of the best educations money can buy and as a newspaper columnist delivered the sort of elegant prose which made him wealthy. But character is not about intelligence, personality or style. It is about the core of his being, and there Johnson has always had a vacuum.
Long before getting to the top of politics, Johnson was a proven liar, a practised liar, a polished liar — a man for whom the truth was as foreign as the moon.
When he entered Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, Johnson lampooned “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters”, saying that “they are going to get it wrong again”.
He set out a utopian vision where he would fix education, social care, the police and the health service. He promised: “I will take personal responsibility. Never mind the backstop — the buck stops here.”
Judged against his own words, he has failed.